If you didn’t think we were in the middle of an epochal shift in the way we consume screen media, get a load of this: The Irishman, Martin Scorsese’s upcoming big budget crime drama, has found a home on Netflix, potentially bypassing traditional theatrical distribution.
Lest we forget, this is the film that will see Scorsese reunite with his old muse, Robert de Niro, for the ninth time. That’s a big deal, but apparently too risky a proposition for Paramount, who balked at the film’s $100 million price tag. “Scorsese’s movie is a risky deal, and Paramount is not in the position to take risks. This way, he can make the project he wants.” an anonymous source said, circumspectly describing an awful world where one of the greatest directors of all time is not a safe bet for a major studio.
This certainly puts Scorsese’s comments over at SBS in a different and sobering light, doesn’t it? “I kind of look back now and I say after all these years, ‘I couldn’t make it as a Hollywood movie maker’,” he said. “I was almost a thief who got away with making these movies in the margins of the book. Some were more in a marketable range…. Others are not.”
Current prevailing wisdom is that big budget films need to be palatable to as broad an audience as possible in order to tap into lucrative overseas territories, especially China – hence the prevalence of spectacle-filled blockbusters based on archetypal story patterns such as the Star Wars and Marvel franchises. That might mean a filmmaker as personal and idiosyncratic as Scorsese might have to fight harder for a place at the table, but surely that’s only true if $100m is still a big budget – in a world where Batman V Superman cost two-and-a-half times that much*, that’s simply not true.
The Netflix model allows the company to defray that cost over multiple territories by snapping up the worldwide rights rather than cutting territory-by-territory deals. Add to that the fact that the company’s profitability is based on subscription rather than ticket sales and it becomes easy to see how potentially risky but prestige projects like The Irishman add to an overall attractive package for current and potential customers. Indeed, an exclusive Scorsese film might be the kicker some holdouts need to finally sign on the dotted line for the streaming service. The caveat to that is the cost might well be the opportunity to see such a film in the theatre.
At least in some territories. Paramount was reported to have purchased the film’s North American rights and, at the time of writing, it’s unknown how the just-announced Netflix deal will affect prior distribution agreements. It’s possible some areas will see a theatrical release of The Irishman, while others miss out – or that the new deal renders prior ones moot. Whatever the case may be, this feels like a turning point; if even directors like Scorsese are turning to digital distro models to get their work made, it seems like we’ll soon the abandoing the multiplexes to the four-quadrant franchises for good.
*Possibly a heck of a lot more, depending on who you listen to.